Entertainment Central Pittsburgh – In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a multi-headed monster. Lucy Kirkwood’s play Chimerica depicts the world’s two current superpowers, China and America, as a multi-headed monster. Quantum Theatre is staging Chimerica in Pittsburgh through December 19. During the holiday shopping season, amid the mass-market madness that is one of the monster’s manifestations, this reviewer would urge you to step away and see Quantum’s production—for reasons that might need explaining.
The play will not give you a holiday high. No miracle will turn Scrooge into a saint or save Tiny Tim. Chimerica is more like an epic tragedy: a hard-edged saga in which people clash with each other, and with massive systems, sometimes risking fatal outcomes, to little avail. The central characters go looking for trouble, find plenty, and wind up creating more. Comical moments abound, but they tingle on the edge of tragicomedy.
And yet surprisingly, Chimerica feels inspirational. Perhaps this is because it isn’t a gloom-and-doom play, just realistic. It’s a story of imperfect people trying to do their best in a couple of imperfect societies. If you cannot relate to that, I would like to meet you and join your Utopia. Otherwise, try this play. In its majestically muddled scope, it somehow—through the magic of theater—manages to evoke the sense that each of us has the possibility of living heroically. In our own imperfect ways.
Who Was That Man?
Chimerica is an imaginary sequel to a true incident. At the end of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, a man stood in front of a column of army tanks to block their progress. Photos of “Tank Man” by an American journalist became iconic images, seen worldwide as symbolizing heroic defiance to brutal authority. But here’s the rub. Tank Man was not a symbolic action figure. He was (is?) a person, with a personal life. Two facts about him remain unknown to the public: his identity and what became of him, after he’d vanished into the nearby crowd.
The play unfolds decades later, in 2012. The American photojournalist, a guy named Joe (played by Kyle Haden), returns to China on an assignment. When he visits a friend, a quirky fellow named Zhang Lin (actor Hansel Tan), their lively chat leads to tangled consequences. Joe resolves on a mission. He’s going to find Tank Man or learn his fate. Zhang—who was at Tiananmen Square in ‘89, among the protesters—suggests that Tank Man might be in America, where some of the organizers fled. And then we’re quickly plunged into a sea of conflicts, both interpersonal and intercontinental.
Joe’s motives are mixed. Locating Tank Man would be a big story, he believes. It would put a human face on the symbol while also rebooting Joe’s career, which has settled into run-of-the-mill mediocrity since he snapped the famous photos. But the mission requires digging into New York’s Chinese immigrant community, trying to wrangle clues out of people who may or may not have real IDs or legal status themselves, and are not eager to share info about a refugee who, understandably, doesn’t want to be found. Many lives are upset by Joe’s quest.